ARITAL bliss has not softened Ernst Middendorp’s angry edge. Having reluctantly agreed to an interview with the Sunday Times, the Maritzburg United coach treats our discussion as an opportunity for an argument.
Does he miss Germany much? “Why should I?” he snaps, as though the question were offensive.
“No,” he says. “I’ve worked in Changchun in China, in Accra, in Tabruz, Iran, in Johannesburg, in Maritzburg. I’ve done rescue missions to Bielefeld. I’m able to adapt anywhere, but I don’t miss anywhere. It’s fine, I put my arse in. That’s my life for the last 16 years. I’m very happy.”
Middendorp got hitched a fortnight ago, the day before his team stunned Mamelodi Sundowns in the Telkom Knockout to book today’s semifinal against Orlando Pirates. He met his wife Bronwyn, a South African kinesiologist, in 2005.
“I separated from my ex-wife in 2000, and we divorced last year. Ach, you know, if you get a bit of money, and a bit of property, there’s a long fight. It took years. Divorce is a very expensive business these days.”
“I think we’ll stay here a lot of years. Our centre of life is Johannesburg. We just bought a house, renovated it, watched the World Cup. This year is a beginning for us. I’m trying to sell my properties and other things in Germany. I’m into settling here, I don’t feel like a foreigner. I can speak the language better and I’m understanding and respecting a lot of things here.”
When he goes back to Germany, he flies into a culture gap. “If I go to Frankfurt and just greet someone I don’t know, you get the feeling you have just insulted that person,” he says. “Here, it doesn’t matter. It’s open minded, you can start a discussion with anybody.”
In Germany, Middendorp started some fights, too. He made his name there by taking Arminia Bielefeld from the third division to the top flight in four years. His martinet style and volatile temper, especially with the media, earned him the nickname “Power-Ernst”. Arminia anointed him their “coach of the century”.
Then Middendorp went walkabout: to Ghanaian side Asante Kotoko, to Kaizer Chiefs, to Iranian side Teraktor Sazi. When he returned to Bielefeld in 2007 for a third stint there, they made a stunning start to the season, topping the table in September. The media saluted him.
But by Christmas, Arminia had plummeted to the basement and a defiant, trash-talking Middendorp got the sack.
He’s now seen as a fairly comical character in German football — and as a result he’s prickly about his Bundesliga record, rattling off his achievements with practised zeal.
“This culture of Monday evening coaching, it’s nice entertainment for people to sit on their arses and laugh at coaches and discuss what’s right and wrong,” he says with disgust.
Middendorp’s CV has too many clubs. His two-year stint at Chiefs was his longest since Arminia in the mid-90s — but his year to date in Maritzburg bodes well.
He kept them up last season, and this campaign he has forged a tough unit who relish rattling the big boys. Middendorp is getting some stellar performances from unfashionable operators such as Rudolf Bester, Diyo Sibisi and rising star Jabulani Ncubeni.
“Ernst is very passionate, he loves his job,” says veteran defender Fabian McCarthy. “He’s not moody, he tries to help players. He wants honesty, and players who respect each other. Because he’s worked in Africa for some time, he knows the body language of SA players. That’s why he has done well.”
The Hugo Boss suits “Mazinyo” favoured in his Amakhosi days have made way for unsightly anoraks. In every sense, Middendorp is cutting his coat according to his cloth.
“We have to be careful about our budget and building the combination,” he says. “If you are Chiefs, you don’t have to give a shit about that. And Pirates and Sundowns have three PSL teams, with the same quality in each position.”
Middendorp sees progress in the PSL since he first coached here in 2005. “It has become more athletic, with a better balance between benefit and entertainment.”
He denies there is a special art to coaching in SA. “If you ask specifically, what is the culture of South African soccer, you are not getting a lot of information!”
But he concedes to making some adaptations. “For example, it’s difficult for a young guy to direct an older teammate. For example, Musa Nyatama is not listening to “Chillies” Madondo, who is younger, and Madondo doesn’t want to direct him. Nyatama is listening to John Arwuah. You have to respect this but try to get the players to forget it during a game.”
Middendorp believes plans to cut the number of foreign players in the PSL are only a distraction from real progress.
“Schalke 04 can start with not one German player. It’s fine! It’s good! Because Thomas Muller and Mesut Özil were in competition with Robben, with Ribery. They got to reach that level not because we reduced the foreigners, but because they learned every day with high-class players. Open it! Let competition happen!” he barks.
“But the key for Muller and Özil was fantastic development from age 10 to 16. So we have to pay youth coaches more.”